Shaw Cramer: Island contemporary art mainstay winds down

After 20 years, Nancy Shaw Cramer, shown here with a painting by Leslie Baker, will close her Vineyard Haven gallery. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Shaw Cramer, the Island’s go-to gallery for contemporary art and crafts, has posted its closing sign after 20 years. The final day is Nov. 30, and most, if not all, of this Vineyard Haven gallery’s remaining holdings are on sale.

“Other people will come to the fore,” Nancy Shaw Cramer, who runs her second-floor Main Street gallery primarily by herself, says. “The problem is the scarcity of contemporary art on the Island.” Although Ms. Cramer invited the Island artists she represents to take over the gallery, turning it into a collaborative venture, they opted not to take that route. The result will be a major gap in the Island art scene.

Ms. Shaw Cramer, who grew up in Michigan and earned a degree in interior design— specifically space design — from Michigan State, began her career in art as a tapestry weaver. She became one of the top ten in the country, and sold more than 100 floor tapestries before opening her gallery. Her former husband’s career was in marketing, and as a result, she lived all over the country before settling on Martha’s Vineyard, where “the vibes were right.” She chose Vineyard Haven because she was living there and wanted to be able to walk to work. “I felt this to be a year-round town, unlike Edgartown,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone, but sometimes that can be an advantage.”

“I love the puzzle,” Ms. Shaw Cramer says. “I’m a designer at heart, so figuring out the business, the display, working with all the personalities, and being part of the art community have been extremely satisfying.” She has also helped design programs for the Island Community Chorus, and helped develop Vineyard Haven as a cultural district, including its Friday night art walks.

At the start, when Ms. Shaw Cramer was planning the gallery, she looked for how-to books but couldn’t find any. Instead, she enrolled in a SCORE workshop at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. SCORE is a national nonprofit organization for promoting small businesses. She found that her planning echoed the advice SCORE talks were suggesting. “It gave me an enormous boost in confidence,” she says. “I knew I was on the right track.” Although she took no salary, she ended the first year with all her bills paid. She listened to advice from friends, in particular that she needed to support her gallery, not the other way around. So her next step was to branch out, which she did by consulting on interior design planning for color and space and by making designer pillows. “I just hung in there,” she says. “And that brought in just enough.”

Initially, the Shaw Cramer Gallery filled a gap in the Island art community by concentrating on fine crafts: pottery, glass, weaving, jewelry, baskets, and sculpture, to name a few. Eventually, Ms. Shaw Cramer added painting to the gallery repertoire. “Six of the original artists are still with me,” she says. “A great number have been in the gallery for 10 years. Four hundred artists have been represented. It’s a big number.” As the gallery finishes its final season, there are 16 Islanders, including Ms. Shaw Cramer, represented, along with a number of off-Island artists.

Each year, Ms. Shaw Cramer tried to raise the bar and do better. The gallery’s success reflects that commitment to excellence. “This is a world of details,” she says. That includes finding the right location for displaying some artists, whether on a wall, a pedestal, or a shelf. She has always made sure that when a piece of art sells, something new goes into its place. Her new artists often served as a springboard of energy, and Ms. Shaw Cramer always made sure she showed them to the best possible advantage. Many galleries are closing across the nation, according to Ms. Cramer. She believes younger people are not necessarily opening galleries –– a business that requires a lot of work –– and that they don’t have the same interest in art as her generation. She thinks collaborative galleries will be the sign of the times.

“I’m sad about the end, but I’m very excited,” Ms. Cramer says. “I try not to think of the last day. That makes me sad. I try to remain upbeat.” Last winter she finished a tapestry, designed and sold nine wrap-around coats, and made 80 pillows. Those completed projects told her the timing was right. She anticipates four different kinds of work in her future. She’ll continue to make pillows and sell them at mini-trunk shows. “I’ve always sewn,” she says. “I find it peaceful.” Ms. Cramer will also continue to make signature clothing, like wrap-around coats and tunics. Rugs will be part of her work agenda, although she’ll use less complex designs. “That’s what I’m saying this year,” she says. She also is working on a new weaving design. “I’m going to work smaller to see if I can make this happen,” she says. “I’ll look for a national show that is exhibit-oriented. I’ll see if I still measure up design-wise. That would be very satisfying.”

Shaw Cramer Gallery may be closing in November, but that does not mean Ms. Cramer will walk away from the artists who have been her clients. “I worry about where my artists will go,” she says. “Next summer I’ll be doing a few mini-events, and some could involve other Island artists.” She will also continue to critique artists’ work. She’s looking forward to road trips, and plans to drop in on galleries along the way: “I’ll be seeing if the situation is right for any of the artists from the gallery.” And as if she didn’t already have enough projects planned, Ms. Shaw Cramer has written one screenplay and has plans for another.

So many of her friendships have developed from the artists she represents and from her customers. “They’ve been coming in to say goodbye to the gallery,” she says. “People who make things don’t usually retire. We just make different things.”